Consciousness and the Post-Capitalist Commons

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* Article: Consciousness and the Post-Capitalist Commons. By Gregory Wilpert. Special issue on: Collective Enlightenment. Spanda Journal, Vol. VII, 1, 2017.

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"It is generally accepted that certain types of institutions function best when most of their members share a certain type of consciousness: a similar way of making sense of the world and of moral judgment. In short, capitalist consciousness works best for capitalist institutions, just as feudal consciousness works best for feudal institutions. If a commons-based society were to be the dominant institutional framework for a better future, then what kind of consciousness would be necessary for it to work? Research in developmental psychology provides us with powerful evidence as to what a post-capitalist consciousness might look like and how it would fit with a commons-based society. The work of some developmental psychologists describe the furthest reaches of consciousness development as being one that is capable of making sense of highly complex systems, as being principle-based (instead of rule-based) and as being flexible, globally empathetic, post-materialist, and capable of finding unity in diversity and diversity in unity. It is precisely these types of characteristics that are necessary for developing a society based on post-capitalist commons. This type of consciousness also points to how future commons would be different from pre-capitalist commons, which is a distinction we will have to make if we hope to move forward towards a post-capitalist future and not regress to pre-capitalist social formations."


Gregory Wilpert:

"Consciousness, though, is also the result of our social conditions. In other words, we need to take both into account: the changing social conditions and the changing forms of consciousness and how these two interact.

This is an enormous task – tracking consciousness, social conditions, negative trends, and positive trends – and so I will limit this article to an aspect that I argue is particularly relevant for the creation of a new and better society: the emergence of the post-capitalist commons."

On the Differences between the Pre-Capitalist Commons and the Post-Capitalist Commons

Gregory Wilpert:

"Pre-capitalist commons have a several characteristics that simply do not apply to post-capitalist commons or, at least, do not apply in the same way. For example, one key difference is that pre-capitalist commons, such as the typical shared grazing land or the shared fishery, was based on scarce but renewable resources. As a result, clearly defined boundaries (characteristic #1) and rules governing resource appropriation (#2) play a central role in scarce resource commons. After all, if everyone can appropriate as much of the commons resources as they want (grassland or fish, for example), the resource will become depleted and no one would be able to take advantage of it any more. Post-capitalist commons, which tend to be knowledge-based, are potentially limitless or non-scarce (or “non-rival”), and thus these principles do not apply to them. Similarly, the 8th characteristic that Ostrom mentions, the need for multiple layers of organization in large-scale commons is also not as necessary in post-capitalist commons. The reason for this is that post-capitalist commons are based on networking and peer-to-peer principles that do not need hierarchical forms of organization in order to function efficiently.

All of the foregoing, about the difference between pre- and post-capitalist commons, does not mean that scarce-resource commons are irrelevant for post-capitalist commons. As a matter of fact, they can be extremely important, as is the case if we consider the planet’s ecosystem a global commons, which needs to be protected and where we need a collectively organized system or rules on how to interact with the global ecosystem. The main reason for making a differentiation between pre- and post-capitalist commons is to point at the differences in consciousness that the two require in order to function well.

There is a third type of commons, though, which we should identify, which also functions under a different type of consciousness from the previous two: the capitalist commons. This might appear to be a contradiction in terms, since we normally consider capitalism to be a system that militates against the principles of the commons. After all, the pre-capitalist commons were largely destroyed with the on-set of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries.1 However, while capitalism was beginning as a form of exploiting workers, some thinkers who wanted to find a less exploitative and less alienating form of production, such as Robert Owen, proposed the creation of cooperatives. If we consider cooperatives to be a form of commons (the capitalist form), this type managed the shared social resource of labor opportunities, instead of a natural resource." (,1.pdf)

Forms of Consciousness and the Forms of the Commons

Gregory Wilpert:

"A particular type of consciousness predominated in each of the three types of commons. By consciousness I mean the perspective from which we see and make sense of the world. This making sense of the world can be divided into at least three spheres: how we perceive the world cognitively, how we relate to the world affectively, and how we justify our interactions with others in the world morally or ethically.

We can analyze the three different types of commons – pre-capitalist, capitalist, and post-capitalist – in these three spheres as follows:

1. Pre-capitalist natural resource commons

a. Cognition: In terms of cognition the type of consciousness that predominated was one that developmental psychologists call “conventional”1 and that sociologists often call “traditional.” This means unquestioningly accepting the worldview that one’s ancestors or religious authorities impart.

b. Affect: One’s affective relationship to the world – or empathy – is limited to one’s social or ethnic group. That is, outsiders are generally seen as being less worthy or less deserving of empathy and understanding.2 The lack of empathy towards outsiders is not necessarily a willful refusal to empathize, but can also be the result of a psychological limitation simply because the “other” is too different to understand or appreciate.

c. Moral reasoning: The affective relationship feeds directly into one’s moral reasoning about how to treat others and act in the social world. Just as one’s cognitive ability, moral reasoning is based on traditional practices and customs that are unquestioned and which tend to prioritize members of one’s own community or group above that of outsiders.

d. Typical characteristics of the pre-capitalist natural resource commons: Based on the foregoing we can see how and why this type of commons tended to be organized. The boundary limitations mentioned earlier, which is typical of natural resource commons fit very well with a form of consciousness that limits cognitive understanding, affect, and moral reasoning to the members of one’s own group or community. A natural resource commons had to be limited to a particular group and the form of consciousness fit with this requirement. Social and cultural commons simply did not exist because both work and culture were usually organized along hierarchical status differences, where religious leaders or political leaders wielded power over others with less status-based power.

2. Capitalist social resource commons

a. Cognition: Here one’s ability to make sense of the world cognitively makes an important leap from relying on the meaning making of others to the meaning making of one’s own rational faculties. In other words, the person begins to question received wisdom and to try to elaborate an understanding of the world independently of others. In developmental psychology this is known as post-conventional reasoning. Historically the emergence of enlightenment philosophy of the 17th century was the main example of this transition in the West. However, just because one thinks one is thinking independently, does not mean that one is. Socially handed down frameworks and paradigms continue to shape this type of consciousness, but these are largely unconscious and not used as a justification for thinking the way one does.

b. Affect: The empathic range begins to go beyond one’s immediate community or social group and in principle expands to all of humanity. However, the empathic range is still limited by a false assumption that everyone else is similar to oneself. That is, the universalization of empathy goes hand-in-hand with the universal projection of one’s own affect on everyone else. It is thus a sort of false empathy, which assumed that one’s being in the world is the same as everyone else’s. It thus cannot take cultural differences properly into account.

c. Moral reasoning: Universal law and universal moral codes begin to emerge, where everyone ought to follow the same law and same moral code. This is thus particularly important for the emergence of universal human rights. It is no coincidence, though, that the first human rights that emerged were very individualistic rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, of assembly, of property ownership, and of equality before the law. These individualistic rights came first because they fit very well with the individual’s emancipation from the group and its traditional norms. This individualistic rational morality thus also made the emergence of capitalism possible, which freed the peasantry from feudal relationships and freed the entrepreneur to maximize profits regardless of what this might mean for others.

d. Typical characteristics of the capitalist social resource commons: Under capitalism two very different types of social resource commons began to develop. The first is the corporation, where the shared resource is the capital that has been invested in the corporation. One could argue, though, that the corporation is not a commons at all because the workers in a corporation generally have absolutely no say in how the corporation is organized or managed. However, if we consider that the shared resource is capital and that membership is limited to those who contributed the initial capital, then the workers are technically not members of this type of social resource commons.

The corporate investors, though, do jointly decide on the overall management and rules of the corporation. The second, perhaps more obvious form of social resource commons under capitalism is the cooperative. Here the shared resource is the labor opportunity that the entire business provides and that all who participate in the cooperative jointly decide on its management, rules, and organization. Both types of social resource commons (corporation and cooperative) depend on a form of consciousness that can accept anyone – of any social or ethnic group – as members, as long as they have the money to make the initial investment for membership. Also, the internal rules or governing principles apply equally to all members (this is true in principle also in pre-capitalist commons, but the homogeneity of membership, where everyone tends to be from the same social group, in this type of commons makes equality of membership a non-issue in pre-capitalist commons).

3. Post-capitalist cultural resource commons

a. Cognition: The cognitive ability to make sense of the world makes another major leap, this time to see the contextual and social frameworks of ones’ (previously presumed universal) understanding. That is, individuals here become more aware of their systemic embeddedness in social relations and how this limits their ability to fully understand the world. It represents a major leap in understanding because recognizing these limitations and frameworks is important for overcoming these. Some call the cognitive ability at this stage “systemic” because people see their embeddedness in systems of relationships and how these relationships affect their way of perceiving the world.

b. Affect: The ability to see relationships across social boundaries and to see all human beings as fundamentally equal also deepens and broadens the scope of empathy the people feel for others. While in the capitalist commons it was assumed that everyone is the same and that equality is based on a false sense of sameness, in the post-capitalist commons there is a recognition of equality despite the differences between people.

c. Moral reasoning: As we recognize equality in difference and difference in equality, the applicability of universal law is relativized in favor of adherence to key principles. That is, instead of insisting on equally applying the laws of one particular society on everyone else, key principles, such as concepts of fairness, justice, and freedom become far more important. Also, as we recognize that political human rights mean little in situations of extreme poverty and inequality, we begin to take social and economic human rights more seriously.

d. Typical characteristics of the post-capitalist cultural resource commons: While the capitalist social resource commons is universal in principle, in the sense that anyone who has the capital or money can join, the post-capitalist cultural resource commons is universal in practice. Membership boundaries thus become a non-issue. Also, there is greater flexibility in the application of rules and sanctions and greater tolerance for the wide variety of activities of all participants in the commons. This is further facilitated by technological advances, which network all participants with each other, thus creating a truly peer-to-peer society, in which inequalities and power hierarchies are seen as obstacle for the functioning of the commons. While individual rationality and the fulfillment of individual needs (or of corporate needs, which were seen as being the same as an individual) were predominant in the capitalist commons, in the post-capitalist commons there is a conscious effort to overcome the dualism between d. individual and collective. The development of the post-capitalist cultural resource commons is further advanced because cultural and knowledge exchange is much freer and uninhibited, both because of the ways in which technology makes such exchanges easier, but also because the recognition of equality in difference makes it more acceptable. The principles learned in the creation of cultural resource commons can then be gradually transferred to post-capitalist natural and social resource commons." (,1.pdf)

What Can Be Done?

Gregory Wilpert:

"The perhaps most serious obstacle for bringing about a post-capitalist commons consciousness is the inequality that has been growing since the 1980’s. It is, in effect, holding back a vast segment of the world’s population, all the while the other part of the world’s population benefits from the increasing inequality. Most people in the upper segment of this dual economic system don’t realize it, but in the US (and in many other countries) this sector finances political campaigns of politicians and supports media outlets that pursue policies to maintain the status quo. The first step to reverse the inequality that our political and economic system perpetuates is to get money out of politics.

But even this is not enough as long as the most important media outlets are also backing policies and political candidates who seek to maintain the status quo. In other words, a profound democratization and diversification of the media landscape is necessary (particularly in the US). Now that more and more people are getting their news and their political analysis from social media, this means that all media (both traditional mass media and social media) need to be transformed from a for-profit basis to a commons. A transformation of the media landscape into a global post-capitalist commons would also address the problem of the psycho-political manipulation of the population.

Once the financial and mediatic basis is removed from maintaining the status quo, policy changes in the direction of reversing economic inequality become much more feasible, especially if these are policies that are directed at everyone and not just towards the poor. Guaranteed basic income would be perhaps the most important such measure."

From the conclusion:

"The next 30 to 50 years will probably be decisive for the survival of the human race. Maintenance of the status quo is no longer feasible because we are reaching absolute limits of ecological and social sustainability. The way out, of transcending this crisis, is to move towards a post-capitalist commons-based society. The capitalist system has gotten us into this mess and only its transcendence will allow us to overcome its problems. The gradually evolving post-capitalist commons and its accompanying consciousness points in the right direction.

A possible vision for what a global society based on the post-capitalist commons could look like involves the three spheres discussed earlier: global natural commons, global social commons, and global cultural commons. For each of these to function properly, though, a critical mass of individuals would have to manage these from a post-capitalist consciousness of the kind described here.

The global natural commons would have to manage first and foremost the air and the oceans. We already have multilateral agreements and forums for making such decisions, but when they are made between governments they are generally going to be far less effective than if they are made between citizens, all participating on a peer-to-peer basis on developing rules that apply equally to everyone (as opposed to the current system, whereby developed Western countries try to reach agreements that allow them to continue to pump far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per capita than populous nations such as China or India).

Achieving a global post-capitalist commons for the social sphere (mainly labor and income) will probably be far more difficult to achieve because of the highly complicated logistics such an undertaking would involve. However, if we are to reduce the inequality within nations and between nations, eventually this issue will have to be tackled. First we will develop post-capitalist social commons on a national level for labor and income. Eventually these could be expanded to a global level, so as to reduce global inequality.

Finally, the currently most advanced post-capitalist commons is in the sphere of culture, knowledge, and information. This is because the technological infrastructure of the internet and of global communications has facilitated the development of this sphere the most. The key here is to create new post-capitalist culture commons, such as for the previously mentioned social media and for news more generally. It actually would be a relatively simple matter to turn social media platforms such as Facebook or Google into post-capitalist commons, which are no longer based on private profit, but on the common good, as defined by all participants in these platforms.

Whether we achieve these different types of post-capitalist commons depends not only on having the technological infrastructure in place, which enables peer-to-peer communication for coordinating and managing these on a large scale. It also depends on whether the participants in these commons have the pre-requisite consciousness to recognize systemic relationships, to empathize, and to develop flexible but principled rules for managing post-capitalist commons on a global scale. Certain trends in today’s society give us reason to hope, but only if we manage to overcome the negative trends that threaten to undermine such a project." (,1.pdf)